They did it again. First, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Nov. 5, “As a conservative democrat party, we have the responsibility to provide security to all the children in this country belonging to mothers, fathers, and their relatives. We do not allow boys and girls to stay together in public dormitories, and we won’t allow it to happen.” When those remarks received significant backlash, Muammer Guler, the interior minister, felt the need to provide explanation, which only made things worse. He argued that the prime minister did not intend to express concern about the boys-and-girls risk of sharing some sexual appeal under the same roof, but that they worried that these kinds of coed accommodation made it a recruitment ground for terrorist organizations.
“In our studies regarding terrorism, one of the key findings is that the terrorist organizations have started to significantly abuse the relationships between the boys and girls, those among the university youth. They use it as a recruitment base to their organizations,” Guler said on Nov. 6. “In the latest operation, 31 out of 85 arrested were females. We have seen the terrorist organizations using the youth for their own purposes. This is the terror aspect of the issue. It’s not about people legally being together or those being together in the student homes, but it is a fact that these children have been targets of terrorist organizations. The families have a right to know where their kids are. The state has a responsibility to protect the youth, and therefore take protective measures. This is the terror aspect of this matter.”
Society can only lose its peace of mind and endanger its real security if the politicians continue to use terms like “terrorist” or “terrorism” out of context for domestic consumption — as is happening in this incident. As much as it was wrong to generalize and package all the Gezi Park protesters as “terrorists” or members of “terrorist organizations,” Guler’s approach to this matter was equally and perhaps more unjustified. His position presents nothing beyond the state considering its university youth as potential terrorists. And that can only backfire, and lay the ground for bigger problems. Many university students have already started to express their dismay, at the very least, at this schoolboyish government rhetoric insulting their dignity.
Moreover, this trend also paints a very problematic picture for Turkey. If one were a foreigner in Turkey and had never been here before, for example, that individual might easily conclude that this was a land where terrorist organizations dominated, as if one out of every two people were a terrorist.
It is important to use these explosive words accurately. Exploiting their strong connotations can only hurt the real fight against terrorism in the long run. People may also lose their sense of right and wrong in the course of unjust accusations for political gains.
That said, Erdogan also had a significant factual error in his argument. Muharrem Ince, chairman of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) parliamentary group, spotted this most pivotal factual mischaracterization in Erdogan's allegation on student dormitories in Turkey: “They claim to separate the mixed girls and boys dormitories. They are either naive or lack intelligence. There has never been a mixed girls and boys dormitory in Turkey. So what is it that you claim to segregate?” he wondered on Nov. 7. “The translation of what Prime Minister Erdogan likes to say is this: The prime minister wants to get revenge for the Gezi Park protests.”
It has been intensely speculated in the Ankara beltway that one reason behind Erdogan’s new agenda was that those youth, the students gathering at homes, mobilized the people to take to the streets during the Gezi Park protests. Even his own party members were critical of his new overture.
Zelkif Kazdal, Ankara deputy of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and known as a close confidant to the prime minister, said such intervention would run against legal norms. “In terms of our values, I have a different way of looking at this issue. This is something about the values I cherish,” he said on Nov. 6. “But there is then the law. The history of mankind has built something about privacy of household in the last thousand years. The legal aspect of this issue is something else, and the value aspect is another. In legal terms, a crime has to be committed for the state authorities to invade the sanctity of a house. If there is no crime, no complaints, no decision by a judge or a prosecutor, no one can intervene in anyone’s residential compound.”
And that is the Catch-22. Since the Gezi Park protests, the ruling party began to accuse ordinary people, who have diverse views and took to the streets to protest the government, as “terrorists.” Speaking about these protests on June 14, Erdogan said, “They hid those behind the scenes. … There are sincere youth in the front, and illegal organizations in the background.” But it was wrong then to paint those protesters as aiding or being members of any terrorist organization — regardless of whether there might be a minority belonging to illegal organizations. Yet, those arrested during the Gezi Park protests were charged by aiding terrorist organizations, sending a chilling wave across the board of those opposing the ruling party’s policies. Once charged with such heinous crime, it stays in one’s official record for a lifetime.
In that light, it was no little thing indeed when Guler tied the prime minister’s remarks on "boys and girls accommodating" under the same roof to issues of terrorism. This is a conservative country, whether the Islamist-based Erdogan government runs it or not. And people pay — sometimes unnecessary — attention to what others say or think about them. And girls still remain the honor symbol of their families. In a snapshot, this incident is pregnant with unprecedented costs to the victims — that is, the university youth coming under Erdogan’s spotlight.
Since Erdogan threw this argument out, it still remains unclear as to what exactly the trouble is. After all, it was the government initiative to hype the number of universities across the nation. They presented it as a success story of their era, and the students surely needed accommodation to attend these universities. If the issue is the lack of dormitories, it is probably not the right way of dwelling on the issue. But, then, on Nov. 1 the government announced a new project that would give young married couples going to university free state scholarships and the right to reside in dormitories for free — as married couples.
Erdogan claims that since he came to power over a decade ago, he has never intervened in anyone’s privacy. And it is a most challenging thing to explain and spot how he does so, just like in social sciences two times two never makes four. But if this incident does not illustrate how the government intervenes in people’s privacy, what does?
This incident opens a Pandora’s box. While the Erdogan government attempts to make Islam the dominant face of the country, detracting from its secular traditions and rule of law, it uses the fear factor — asserting that these university youth are prone to fall into the hands of the terrorist organizations. Then, the real responsibility for the government is to do its best to keep these terrorist organizations away from school campuses, instead of seeing a right to invade the privacy of the students and the public.